What’s in a Degree?

While I believe education, both K – 12 and post-secondary, are vital to society, I wonder if the purpose of these institutions has been skewed – particularly in higher education. This post intends to explore the question: “why take a university degree?”

The reasons for undertaking a university degree are many, but, today, I have noticed a strong emphasis on the belief that it is to “prepare for a job”. While I agree this may be true(er) of some faculties than others (i.e. engineering, medicine, nursing, etc.), I am not convinced this should be the purpose of a university degree; to me, a university degree is to teach you to think, participate as a citizen, and reasonably justify your decisions. Yet, I fear this is not the view of many students in the higher education system today.

I belong to a few university pages where undergrad (and grad) students discuss and share issues from around campus. Recently, a discussion around a required Native Studies course came about. Many students were opposed to this idea but the arguments that stood out to me were a) this is the job of high schools and b) university is to prepare us for our careers. As for the job of high schools, it has been well documented in epistemological literature (see Hofer & Pintrich, 1997 for a nice overview) that it is throughout the university years that humans learn to reason and think. Relegating knowledge to secondary studies robs students of deep thinking skills in any area. Wouldn’t a Native studies course make us all better citizens? How can (as an example) a future engineer claim they don’t need an understanding of these people and the historical issues when there is such an interest in drilling on indigenous land? I digress, the issue here is not a consideration of Native Studies but that a university degree is seen as a pathway to a future “job”.

Typically, people can easily agree with me on the faculty of arts as being a place to “learn to be a citizen”, but have difficulty seeing this in the sciences, and even more so in the professional faculties. Yet, university does not guarantee employment in every area. For example, my university graduates around 1000 new teachers every year, and many of them will not find employment as teachers (despite the fact we have an excellent highering rate). Students feel cheated – they took this degree for nothing! Yet, taking a degree does not promise employment, it promises to teach you the skills and thinking you need to participate in this world.

While I could muse on this topic for awhile, I will leave you with this: What is the purpose of post-secondary education? And for those who have taken a degree, why did you take it and what did the experience do for you?


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